Circle Machines and Sequencers:
The Untold History of Raymond Scott’s Electronica
By Irwin Chusid and Jeff Winner
Published in Electronic Music magazine, December 2001 (updated 2016)
I have a story that may be of interest to you.
It is not widely known who invented the circuitry concept for the automatic sequential performance of musical pitches—now well known as a “sequencer.”
I, however, do know who the inventor was—for it was I who first conceived and built the sequencer.
Bob Moog, who visited me occasionally at my lab on Long Island, was among the first to see and witness the performance of my UJT-Relay sequencer.
To digress for a bit: I was so secretive about my development activities—perhaps neurotically so—that I was always reminding Bob that he mustn’t copy or reveal my sequencer work to anyone. I understand, now, my personal need for secrecy at that time. Electronic music for commercials and films was my living then—and I thought I had this great advantage—because it was my sequencer.
Word naturally got around about the nature of what my device accomplished, but Bob Moog continued to be loyal. I must say Bob Moog is a most honorable person. He steadfastly refrained from embodying my sequencer in his equipment line until the sheer pressure of so many manufacturers using the sequencer forced him to compete. Yet, he used the simplest version, though he knew about my most advanced sequencer. Quite a gentleman, and a super talent besides.
Now, with the passing of years, I guess I regret my secrecy and would like for people to know of what I accomplished.
– Raymond Scott, ca. late 1970s (unaddressed letter found in his personal papers)
When the Raymond Scott revival kicked off almost a decade ago, the composer’s name was commonly confused with noir novelist Raymond Chandler and actor Randolph Scott. Lately a different identity perplex has emerged: was Scott (1908-1994) a quasi-jazz alchemist from the late 1930s Swing Era whose melodies later underscored Bugs Bunny and Ren & Stimpy cartoons—or was he the unsuspecting godfather of techno, electronica, and ambient music?
These two historical roles might seem incompatible—yet they co-exist within the same enigmatic figure. In fact, upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that there is neither paradox nor contradiction in the two roles, but rather an idiosyncratic continuity.
Many of Scott’s playful riffs, recorded from 1937 to 1939 by the Raymond Scott Quintette, are genetically encoded in every earthling, having been adapted by Warner Bros. music director Carl Stalling in 120 Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes animated classics. (These themes and others were later featured in a dozen episodes of Nickelodeon’s Ren and Stimpy Show.) The rediscovery of Scott’s original novelty jazz recordings, launched with the 1992 Columbia CD release Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights (produced by author Chusid, with help from Hal Willner), led to a belated reappraisal of Scott’s timeless—and long forgotten—genius. Throughout the ’90s, his early works were covered by the Kronos Quartet, Don Byron, Foetus, Holland’s Metropole Orchestra, the Beau Hunks Sextette, and countless other admirers. Scott’s 1937 rave-up “Powerhouse” has been nicked by Rush, They Might Be Giants, Gwar, Devo, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, James Horner (in the soundtrack to Honey, I Shrunk The Kids), and rappers The Boys, as well as being used thematically in The Simpsons, Animaniacs, and Duckman. His melodies have been sampled three times by urban wiseguys Soul Coughing. David Harrington of Kronos said that his first introduction to the music of Raymond Scott in 1992 “was like being given the name of a composer I feel I have heard my whole life, who until now was nameless. Clearly he is a major American composer.” So much for setting straight the first stage of Scott’s place in 20th century music chronicles.
Awareness of the second stage began in 1997 with Basta Records’ stunning CD reissue of Scott’s 1963 Soothing Sounds for Baby (SSFB) trilogy. These albums, largely overlooked upon their original LP release, contained gentle—and all-electronic—sonic companions designed to calm and delight infants. In retrospect, however, Scott’s pioneering and little-heard explorations of synthesized rhythmic minimalism and low-key ambience foreshadowed the subsequent conjurings of Terry Riley, Phillip Glass, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. That most of Scott’s ethereal mellifluence was performed on vacuum tube- and transistor-rigged music machines which he designed and built made the re-emergence of these recordings seem like the Dead Sea Scrolls of electronica.
But SSFB couldn’t possibly prepare the world for the exotic artifacts found on Basta’s 2-CD set, Manhattan Research Inc. (MRI). MRI (co-produced by author Winner), whose contents stretch from 1953 to 1969, contains 69 tracks (over two hours’ worth) of Scott’s groundbreaking electronic work in adult dimensions. Forays into abstract musique concrète can be heard alongside decidedly “non-kiddie” collaborations with a young pre-Muppet Jim Henson, and pan-galactic sonics seemingly beamed down from hovering UFOs. In addition, MRI presents some of the first TV and radio commercials to employ electronic music soundtracks. The package moved Can’s Holger Czukay to disbelief. “This is from the 1950s and ’60s?,” he exclaimed. “I’m trying to achieve something like this now!” Czukay observed that, “Raymond Scott belongs to the phalanx of unique people like Les Paul, Oscar Sala, and Leon Theremin, to whom we owe so much in developing our own musical identity today.”
Nothing is impossible in this atomic age. Someday, perhaps within the next hundred years, science will perfect a process of thought transference from composer to listener. Devices already have been perfected to record the impulses of the brain. In the music of the future, the composer will merely THINK his idealized conception of his music. His brain waves will be picked up by mechanical equipment and channeled directly into the minds of his hearers. Instead of recordings of actual music sound, recordings will carry the brain waves of the composer directly to the mind of the listener.
– Raymond Scott, 1949
Before embarking on a professional music career at his older brother’s insistence in 1931, Scott intended to pursue engineering. He was fascinated by technology, and knew his way around radio and recording studios with a sophistication rarely seen among composers and bandleaders. Throughout his life, Scott explored technology in the service of music with a Nobel laureate’s dedication. He revolutionized the art of microphone placement, and spent many of his band’s recording sessions in the control room, monitoring the mix. A June 1937 article in Down Beat, entitled “Engineer-Musician Electrifies Swing World With Ideas,” described Scott’s New York apartment as “divided into two parts—in one the dominant note was the piano and phonograph; and in the other was all sorts of recording equipment, with microphones all over the place and long wires trailing across the floor.” The feature explored Scott’s science of “creative acoustics”—manipulating and capturing sounds with a mic that differed from those heard by the naked ear. A November 1937 feature in Popular Mechanics, entitled “Radio Music of the Future,” described Scott “placing a ‘dead’ microphone beside the piano and then turning it on only after the keys have been struck [to] catch the ghost-like effect” of after-tones that are “ethereal, disembodied, [and have] a sense of great space.” EDITED TO HERE
As a composer, Scott was a strict perfectionist with little tolerance for improvisation, which triggered the ire of many jazz purists. He earned notoriety as a session tyrant, and was commonly criticized for treating his sidemen and vocalists as hardware. His drummer Johnny Williams commented, “All he ever had was machines—only we had names.” Singer Anita O’Day, who worked briefly with Scott’s early 1940s big band, called him “a martinet” who “reduced [musicians] to something like wind-up toys.”
In 1946—the same year Scott composed the score for the Mary Martin–Yul Brynner Broadway production Lute Song—this restless musical Tesla established Manhattan Research Inc. to expand the horizons of electronic sound generation. From 1950 to 1957, his technological excursions were financed by his salary for conducting the orchestra on NBC-TV’s cornball—and high Nielsen-flying—chart countdown show, Lucky Strike’s Your Hit Parade (a gig he allegedly despised for its banality). Raymond and his then-wife, singer Dorothy Collins, were seen on the little screen in millions of American households every week—but few suspected the alter-ego lurking behind the conductor’s forced stage smile.
At the dawn of the ’60s Scott advertised MRI as “the world’s most extensive facility for the creation of Electronic Music and Musique Concrète.” A slogan for his venture was: “More than a think factory—a dream center where the excitement of tomorrow is made available today.” By spending more time soldering circuits and less with union-scale sidemen, Scott eventually dispensed with the human element altogether. He was more comfortable around machines; he spoke their language. Or taught them to speak his. In fact, as Electronic Music Foundation president Joel Chadabe pointed out, “Scott’s music is so perfectly crafted, so lyrical and easy, so completely charming and good-natured, that it seems all the more wonderful, even mysterious, that much of it was created with the sophisticated and complex technology he invented. Scott developed his instruments to make his music—and did it so well that what you hear is the music.”
The inventions themselves evolved per the whims of Scott’s boundless curiosity. In March 1946, he patented an electromechanical synthesizer called the Orchestra Machine. An obscure ancestor of the tape loop-based Mellotron, it featured a keyboard which could simulate an ensemble of traditional musicians. “This machine is a device incorporating a number of multiple soundtrack units, that may be selected as would the musical instruments in an orchestra,” revealed Scott’s patent disclosure. “The entire mechanical driving system’s speed may be varied in order to select any particular musical pitch.”
Two years later, he began a decade of work on a behemoth sound effects generator that he eventually christened “Karloff” (after the horror film legend). He demonstrated the unit to columnist Joseph Kaselow of the New York Herald Tribune, who reported: “The heart of the unit is a control panel with some hundred or so buttons and dials from which Scott can get an infinite number of rhythms and sound combinations—treble, bass, beeping, swishing, honking—you name it. Scott’s machine, actually a control console which selects, modifies, and combines sounds produced by electronic means, has 200 sound sources and is capable of quickly producing infinite and varied musical and electronic effects. The machine uses several electronic tone generators, and others can be added. The control panel directs pitch, timbre, intensity, tempo, accent, and repetition. It can sound like a group of bongo drums. It can give impressions which suggest common noises. It can create the mood of musical tone-poems. And it can also produce limitless emotional variations to suit a variety of musical styles—all, of course, if Scott is at the controls.”
The Theremin that Grew
A 20-year-old Columbia University student named Robert Moog (“I was this electronics nerd on track to becoming an engineer”) and his father were among the privileged few to witness Scott’s obsessions in action. At the time, Moog père and fils built theremins in their basement. Scott wanted to obtain the device’s electronic subassembly, and he invited the Moogs to tour his Manhasset facility. “First, Raymond showed us his recording studio. Then a very large room with a cutting lathe and all sorts of monitoring and mixing equipment,” recalled the synthesizer pioneer. “The entire downstairs was a dream workshop consisting of a large room with machine tools of the highest quality; a woodworking shop; an electronics assembly room, and a large, thoroughly equipped stockroom of electronic parts. My father and I were there with our mouths hanging open!”
I rate Raymond Scott as one of the greatest music technology innovators of the 20th century. Although largely unknown in his lifetime, his music technology vision was so wide that today it is impossible to turn on a piece of equipment in your studio without automatically issuing a benediction to the spirit of Raymond Scott.
– Matt Black / Coldcut
This encounter commenced a social and professional relationship between Bob and Ray that sustained for nearly two decades. “When I first worked for Scott in the early 1950s, he had a very large laboratory,” explained Moog. “One room was completely filled with rack upon rack of relays, motors, steppers and electronic circuits. Raymond would go around and adjust various things to change the sound patterns. I’d never seen anything like it. It was a huge, electromechanical ‘sequencer’!” Scott called it his “Wall of Sound.”
Scott used the Moogs’ theremin module in the first prototype of his keyboard synthesizer, the Clavivox, which he patented in 1956. A few years before meeting the Moogs, Scott had fashioned a toy theremin for his daughter Carrie. “I must have been 11 or 12, which would be around 1950 or 1951,” recalled Carrie (Makover). “I had seen a Broadway play called Mrs. McThing which used a theremin, and I loved the way it sounded. But after my dad built it, I discovered I couldn’t play it. So he took it back and made it into something else.” The resulting synthesizer allowed a player to glide smoothly from one note to another without a break over a three-octave keyboard. It could be played expressively (not just discrete notes), and subsequent improvements allowed staccato attacks, on/off vibrato toggling, and countless effects. It could also simulate many traditional instruments.
“This was not a theremin anymore,” asserted Moog. “Raymond quickly realized there were more elegant ways of controlling an electronic circuit.” In subsequent models, Scott used photo cells and a steady light source beamed through photographic film graded from opaque to transparent. This varied the voltage, which changed the pitch of the tone generator. The waveform of the sound determined the tone color, and the methods of altering the waveform were similar to modern analog synths. In fact, Moog maintained, “A lot of the sound-producing circuitry of the Clavivox resembled very closely the first analog synthesizer my company made in the mid-’60s. Some of the sounds are not the same, but they’re close.”
The discipline Scott had imposed on his musicians came naturally to himself, a relentless workaholic. But in 1957, at age 50, he endured his first encounter with serious heart trouble. “I had many dead spots around my body,” he wrote in a private journal. “Cardiac specialists gave me one year to live.” Instead of slowing, Scott’s pace increased. Perhaps he realized that, besides outmaneuvering competitors, he was also pitted against the undertaker’s pocket watch.
Around 1959 Scott designed and built a more compact electronic sequencer he called the Circle Machine. Berklee Music Synthesis professor Dr. Thomas Rhea, who visited Scott many times in the early 1970s, remembered it as “an analog waveform generator that was this crazy, whirling-dervish thing. It had a ring of incandescent lamps, each with its own rheostat, and a photo-electric cell on a spindle that twirled in a circle above the lights.” The intensity of each bulb was individually adjustable, as was the rotation speed of the photocell. As the lights brightened, the pitch ascended. Arm rotation speed governed the rhythm. The lights could be staggered in brightness, and depending on the pattern, the tone sequence generated would change accordingly. The Circle Machine was capable of a wide range of unearthly sounds, as evidenced by numerous commercial jingles Scott recorded during the late 1950s and early 1960s (many heard on MRI).
Building on the foundations of, and cannibalizing components from Karloff and his “Wall of Sound” sequencer, Scott developed the first version of his “instantaneous composition/performance machine” in the late 1950s. He named it the “Raymond Scott Electronium” (no relation to the German Hohner electronium), and it became the most ambitious and resource-consuming project of his life. Laboring for decades, he developed many different incarnations, which all had in common Scott’s artificial intelligence technology. “The entire system is based on the concept of Artistic Collaboration Between Man and Machine‚” Scott explained in a patent disclosure. “The new structures being directed into the machine are unpredictable in their details, and hence the results are a kind of duet between the composer and the machine.”
Instead of a traditional, piano-style keyboard, the Electronium was “guided” by a complex series of buttons and switches, arranged in orderly rows. The system was capable of “instantaneous composition and performance” of polyphonic rhythmic structures, as well as tasking preset programs. With Scott controlling the sonorities, tempi, and timbres, he and his machine could compose, perform, and record—all at once. The parts weren’t multi-tracked—voices, rhythms, and melodies originated simultaneously in real time.
“A composer ‘asks’ the Electronium to ‘suggest’ an idea, theme, or motive,” wrote Scott in the operating manual. “To repeat it, but in a higher key, he pushes the appropriate button. Whatever the composer needs: faster, slower, a new rhythm design, a hold, a pause, a second theme, variation, an extension, elongation, diminution, counterpoint, a change of phrasing, an ornament, ad infini. It is capable of a seemingly inexhaustible palette of musical sounds and colors, rhythms and harmonies. Whatever the composer requests, the Electronium accepts and acts out his directions. The Electronium adds to the composer’s thoughts, and a duet relationship is set up.”
“It was always this kind of metaphysical, almost magical thing, about literally thinking things to the point where they would happen,” explained Hofstra University music professor Herb Deutsch, who worked with Moog to develop the first Moog Synthesizer in 1964. Deutsch, who also worked for Scott, remembered one of his colleague’s visionary objectives: “I remember distinctly what [Raymond] told me—and he told me a lot of times. He wanted to take the work out of being a musician. That used to really get me upset! He said, ‘Look, I just want to sit here, and I’d like to turn this machine on, and whenever it does something good, I just want to record it at that point.’ It was not that he was a lazy guy—far from it. He worked incredibly hard to take the work out of being a composer.”
Alan Entenman, a circuitry expert who assisted Scott, recalled, “What Ray did was to recognize that music has repetitions and patterns, and he envisioned a machine that would incorporate those patterns. He thought of it as ‘an orchestra with a thousand voices.’ It had plug-in modules, and each module was a synthesizer of his own design that was capable of making a wide variety of sounds. Each one he would give a different voice, and what he kept telling me was, that if you listen to music, it’s repetition. You could repeat notes in a different tone. What made his Electronium successful was his knowledge of composition. Being a composer, he knew how to construct music from these things. And it really worked!
“This thing could make any kind of music you could imagine,” Entenman stressed. “One time he had [what] he described as this real sexy, ‘raunchy jazz’ coming out of this thing. [Scott] and [his compatriot, electronic instrument inventor-composer] Bruce Haack were just in heaven.
“I understand the secret, to some extent,” said Entenman. “The harmonics are precise mathematical multiples, and when something vibrates, there are overtones. The way you blend these overtones, and the amount of offset they have with one another, gives it warmth. That’s what he would do to get it to sound rich. He’d couple that with the melodious, rhythmic patterns he built into it. He would program how it was repeated, and in what key it would be repeated, so it was like gears within gears.”
Refining the Electronium was Scott’s primary focus throughout the 1960s, when the availability of integrated circuits made smaller and more efficient designs possible. Scott asked Moog to “sophisticate my equipment. The concept is the same as I’ve had for many years now. And you’re the scientist who will make these things small, more compact, and with fewer parts.” Moog replaced Scott’s eight-stage “sequential timer” relays with electronic stepping switches.
Despite another bout of heart trouble in 1967, Scott continued to focus full-time on his Electronium. By the end of the 1960s, he had invested more than a decade—and over a million dollars—refining his brainchild. But his health was failing, and his once-substantial royalties were dwindling.
In August 1970, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, based in L.A., read an article about Scott’s work in Variety. He immediately phoned Scott and asked to see—and hear—this miraculous invention. A sizable Motown entourage arrived at Scott’s Farmingdale, New York facility in a fleet of limos. “It was genius meeting genius,” recalled Motown executive Guy Costa in 1997. “Berry certainly respected Ray and his knowledge, and Ray admired Berry.”
Gordy was impressed by Scott’s Beethoven-in-a-box. “Berry felt that the power of the Electronium, the ability to numeralize the music process, was important,” said Costa. “Berry was always a formula man—he’d find a rhythm or a progression and build on that. The Electronium gave you the ability to play a chord, and the ability to store rhythms, and resequence those things. To have all these new effects was a turn-on.”
One month later, Gordy placed an order for an Electronium. The initial down payment was $10,000, but it would eventually cost Motown millions. Costa arranged for shipment of the device from New York to Gordy’s home in L.A. Scott planned to spend six weeks tutoring the Motown overlord on the device. But when Gordy asked Scott to make further modifications, the inventor was happy to comply and continued working in L.A., with his client involved in and monitoring progress. Eventually, the Motown impresario offered Scott a staff position as head of Electronic Research and Development. Scott accepted, and in 1972 relocated to the West Coast with his (third) wife Mitzi. He was provided with his own research studio facility, where he continued to develop the Electronium and other technologies. “Berry was looking at the Electronium as a source of inspiration and new ideas, and as a methodology—as a sophisticated programmable sequencer,” explained Costa. “It was an idea stimulator, a creative thought processor. Maybe find combinations that hadn’t been tried. It could have done anything he wanted it to do.”
Following a serious heart attack, Scott retired in 1977 at age 69. “Ray was a wonderful guy,” Costa reflected. “I can’t tell you how much fun we had together. He was the experimenter—the Mad Professor.” What Motown had to show commercially for their investment remains a mystery to this day, as no tapes have yet surfaced from their vaults. (Berry Gordy—please get in touch!)
After continued heart problems in the late 1970s, Scott was no longer on the cutting edge of music technology. He tried to manage the transition to microprocessors to upgrade his devices, but lost valuable research time due to illness. “By then,” lamented Mitzi, “he had destroyed the Electronium by vandalizing it for parts for other things he was working on. And new electronics had come so far, that they could do with one little chip what he had tons of wiring doing on the Electronium. It didn’t pay to keep working on it.”
But Scott didn’t give up. Despite deteriorating health (including heart bypass surgery), he labored away—even while bedridden. In the mid-1980s, he modified a Yamaha DX-7 and used MIDI to connect the keyboard to his Electronium via a PC purchased in 1981. “I got involved in an exciting project,” the 75-year-old wrote in his journal in June 1983. “For 3 months I slept an average of about 50 hours weekly. Then I folded. Symptoms of folding: extreme fatigue, wobbly walking, accumulation of chest pains, zero energy output capability.” A major stroke in 1987 closed down the shop completely. Even more tragic, he could barely speak, rendering him unable to answer questions when the revival of interest in his work commenced in 1992. He passed away in February 1994 at age 85.
“I understand his ideas about the collaboration between man and machine,” said Rhea, “which to me is the most important thing he did, in terms of electronics and music. He anticipated some artificial intelligence concepts and some compositional concepts that people believe somebody else did. The idea of collaborating with a machine, and allowing the machine to make certain decisions, was pretty avant-garde.
“I appreciate everything Cage did, and Stockhausen,” Rhea attests. “But there’s a whole tradition here that’s being ignored, and Raymond Scott is one of those people.” Scott’s old colleague Bob Moog recently told the BBC, “Raymond was the first. He foresaw the use of sequencers, and the use of electronic oscillators, to make sounds. These were the watershed uses of electronic circuitry.”
Where Are They Now?
One Clavivox (of at least three known to have been built) still exists—and still works. It is one of many vintage electronic instruments owned by the Audities Foundation of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, under the directorship of David Kean. The Clavivox was used recently by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on their album Echo.
The Motown version of the Scott Electronium was bought from Scott’s widow Mitzi by composer/musician and Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh, who houses it at his Mutato Muzika studios in Hollywood. At Mutato is a room where Scott’s unique device for “Machine Powered Instantaneous Musical Composition and Performance” has been collecting dust since 1996. It had been partly eviscerated by the inventor for spare parts, and no longer functions. Mothersbaugh has promised to restore it to working order.
Irwin Chusid is Director of the Raymond Scott Archives. His study of outsider music, Songs in the Key of Z, was recently published by A Cappella Books.
Jeff Winner co-produced Manhattan Research Inc., the new 2-CD and book set of Raymond Scott’s early electronic work, and created RaymondScott.com.